Alice Riley was one of the first indentured servants James Oglethorpe bought for the sum of approximately eight dollars. When she arrived in the city, she was placed in the bond of a particularly crass and perverse man, William Wise. Wise was a man of low regard but an artificially inflated self-esteem. He carried himself as a man about town even though his position in the community was known as “the cow keeper”. This was in reference to his being assigned to care of the cities cattle. Alice Riley was placed with him to assist with the livestock and the even more loathsome task of bathing her Master. Wise would lay back and let his long stringy hair fall into a bucket of water. Alice, still a teenager, was forced to pick the knots out of his hair, wash it, bathe him and attend to his every whim.
Alice Riley is often referred to as Sorceress Alice Riley in Savannah, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence she practiced witchcraft and it certainly wasn’t the crime for which she was hanged. That would be the murder of one William Wise, carried out with the help of a man named Richard White, who was widely considered the common law husband of Alice.
The accusations against the pair involved a simple plan. They waited until Wise called Alice in for his regular bath and grooming session. Once his head was leaned back into the bucket of water, Alice and Richard allegedly held him under until he drowned. The two apparently dumped the body in the Savannah River but failed to consider the current. Instead of drifting down the river, the body is said to have simply floated across it and washed up on the opposite shore.
In either case, Alice was imprisoned until she gave birth to the baby, who was immediately taken from her. She would never hold her child and now, the gallows awaited her arrival. She was led into Wright Square and on January 19, 1735 was hanged by the neck until dead for the crime of murder. Her body dangled there for three days. She had become the first woman in Georgia to be executed. Her baby would die less than two months later.
Today the story is remembered, not just in historical and legal records, but also by those who say they have encountered the ghost of Alice. It is a common occurrence for people visiting Wright Square to tell stories of a frantic woman looking for her child. The woman, in period dress, has even been mistaken for an actor by some who say the apparition approached them in broad daylight and was as solid as a living person. It’s only when she disappears into nothingness, while continuing her desperate search around the square, that the witnesses realize they have seen her ghost. The credibility for the claims I have heard rests in the fact that many of the people who have contact with the ghost of Alice are not from Savannah. They are visitors, most for the first time, and none I have spoken with heard her story beforehand. However, an overwhelming number of the witnesses did have one commonality; they were women with children in a stroller. Further evidence of an unjust hanging, many say, is the fact that Spanish moss won’t grow on the north side of the square where the gallows were. Conditions for Spanish moss are ideal in Wright Square and it thrives on the southern end. There doesn’t appear to be a botanical reason for the limitation. Is there a spiritual boundary line in the square; the north end cut off from normal acts of nature by the ethereal residue of zealous lynch mobs?
Spanish moss is neither Spanish, nor moss. It is actually a member of the same family as the pineapple and draws its nutrients from the air and moisture around it. It is prevalent throughout Savannah and used for a variety of things in the low country. It is considered a sacred staple item in potions, magic oils and is used as a traditional stuffing in Voodoo dolls. Could this sacred plant, which takes nothing from the tree on which it abides, be unwilling to grace those unjust voids where innocent blood was shed?
Its absence in the gallows section of Wright Square seems to say it will not.
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